Canada dithers on its peacekeeping commitments
– and loses credibility for it

Fergus Watt and Walter Dorn


Originally published as an opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen on 21 March 2017. 


On the night of his federal election victory in October 2015, Justin Trudeau proudly declared that “Canada is back” on the international stage. A signature activity of his government was to “renew Canada’s commitment to United Nations peace operations,” as the new prime minister stated in the mandate letter to his defence minister a few weeks later.

The list of mandated peacekeeping actions was ambitious, including specialized Canadian capabilities to help the UN respond more quickly to armed conflicts, and leading an international effort for training of military and civilian personnel. To make more concrete the personnel commitment, in August 2016 Canada pledged to provide up to 600 military personnel and 150 police for UN operations.

Canada has so far failed to deliver on these promises. A year-and-a-half into the current term of office, the Trudeau government has left the contributions to UN peacekeeping at an all-time low. Less than 30 military personnel are now deployed, even as the UN is near its all-time high of over 90,000.

There were reasonable prospects last year that Canada would command a major UN operation, probably in Mali. But Canada failed to meet UN expectations for the associated troop commitment. Furthermore, the Trudeau government has yet to send a single officer to serve in the military branch at UN headquarters, where more than 70 countries are represented. And the envisioned international training programme is nowhere to be seen.

Canada was quick to support combat operations in Iraq and Syria, but has been slow to support UN peace operations. Supporting UN operations is not only a humanitarian imperative, to save lives and alleviate human suffering, but it is in Canada’s interest to re-engage in an activity that once made Canada proud and a constructive force in world affairs.

Conflicts in Africa and the Middle East are now open wounds on the world body, hemorrhaging the terrible tragedies of massive refugee flows and the deadly spread of disease, crime and drugs. Unless Canada does its part, it is letting down the international community, as the world struggles against global problems and vicious conflicts.

Furthermore, Canada’s standing at the UN is diminished by the Trudeau government’s failure to live up to its commitments. A country must show that its word is its bond and that promises are kept. Otherwise, credibility is lost. Even though the campaign commitment to peacekeeping was not made with a much sought-after Security Council seat in mind, the chances of securing a Security Council seat are diminished by continued foot-dragging and political inaction.

Canada’s military is well able to deploy troops on UN missions but the political decision-making is stuck in a quagmire. The latest excuse is that the government wanted to check with the Trump administration before it made a UN deployment decision. Seeking Trump’s approval? That should not be necessary for a government whose international policies are based on principle and sound policy.

The government has pledged to host a meeting of defence ministers in 2017 to support UN peace operations. If Canada does not show some resolve and dynamism, the embarrassment will only increase by the time the ministers arrive from the four corners of the world.

When it was announced, Canada’s promised return to peacekeeping provided a refreshing alternative to the Stephen Harper government. But by its inaction, the Trudeau government is behaving much like its predecessor. Even worse, promises are not kept and its credibility is slipping. While Africa suffers, the UN struggles and Canada dithers.

The government can still make good on its promises. In an international community rocked by narrow-minded nationalism, Canada can and should act to support internationalism and the United Nations. Otherwise the promise and euphoria of election night will seem even more like an ephemeral and disappearing dream.


Fergus Watt is Executive Director of the World Federalist Movement – Canada. Walter Dorn is President of the World Federalists Movement – Canada and a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.